Several years ago I stumbled upon a newspaper article about a wife sale in Spalding, Lincolnshire, England. In 1786 A Thomas Hand sold his wife, with her consent, to Thomas Hardy for five shillings. The article intrigued me for many reasons, but especially that the buyer had the same name as the author of the novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge’ which made the practice so famous – or rather – infamous. Mrs Hand was delivered to Hardy in a halter, as was usual, and a written agreement was signed by three witnesses. With nine friends, they had a celebratory dinner at which the woman dined at the head of the table “with great composure”. The latter term was often used to describe a marriage, and this is an aspect of wife selling that is generally ignored by many accounts. Wife selling was often claimed to be a cheap form of divorce, but the divorce was often the precursor to the woman remarrying, in some cases church bells were rung in celebration.
Wife sales were generally claimed to be humiliating acts forced onto women by brutal husbands, but events like that above tell a very different story. The women were generally claimed to be sold to the highest bidder in an open market to insure the act’s legality, but in many instances the buyer was known to the couple, and was often named as the wife’s beau or lover. Far from being victims in such instances, it was often the woman who had betrayed her husband, and the sale was a public acknowledgement of what their friends and family already knew.
Newspapers widely condemned wife selling, with some claiming it was against the law, but no law was ever cited. Even more curious was the silence from the clergy who should have been leading the moral outrage. As a child, the folkloricist/cleric Sabine Baring-Gould witnessed the arrival of the village poet with a bought wife, and despite being challenged by the local vicar and justice, he insisted the sale represented both a legal and Christian marriage. Baring-Gould was intrigued by this widespread belief, yet when he later recorded several other sales, but failed to challenge them.
So what was going on? England and Wales were the only Protestant countries to retain the Pre-Reformation ban on divorce. Until well into the 19th century, the only divorces granted were for men with wealth and estates whose wives had failed to provide them with a male heir. Until the 1750s the definition of marriage itself was unclear; a couple could get hitched for life by exchanging vows in the absence of witnesses. Added to the mix was the increased mobility of young people, who often married in haste, without the advice of friends or family. All of this led to a perfect storm of many people having marriages that became unhappy, but from which they were unable to escape. But this was the age of enlightenment, and of improvement, so it seems many people sought ways to resolve their unhappiness. It seems some men ran away – to sea, to war, to anywhere. Others tried to do the right thing, especially when the wife found a new beau. By arranging a sale, the husband was allowed to obtain what is now termed ’closure’, and the shame of being cuckolded, of being unable to control his wife, was addressed.
Much has been written about the legal invisibility of women in the past. This made them vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment by men – especially their husbands. But it also made men legally responsible for them. The poet Robert Southey claimed this allowed the women to be more rebellious. At the time of food and other riots, they were often in the forefront as the militia were less likely to fire on them. Thus the story of wife selling is not just about the problems of marriage. It is about how the English devised a curious solution to what became a widespread social problem. It also highlights much about civil and matrimonial laws and how they work. It seems that unhappy marriages have always been with us; most people were forced to make the most of their situation, but for some brave, or perhaps reckless couples, the sale of the wife provided a chance to start again, to allow both man and wife to move on. Marriage is an institution that should provide comfort and support for those involved. It should not force couples into a lifetime of unhappiness when the relationship failed.
Barbara Drummond, Guest Blogger